Everyone has seen performers on stage and wondered what their lives are really like. The stage, no matter what attempts are made at intimacy, always puts a distance between the performer and the audience. Whether performers are different than the persons they appear to be on stage is not the question. The question is, how different are they?
Having interviewed Randy Stonehill in the past, I thought that I idea of what he was like-even though the circumstances of our meetings were far from the best. This time, however, I had the opportunity to spend a full day with Randy and his family. I would be able to see firsthand how he deals with the mundane things of life as well as the unexpected suprises. I was especially interested to find out if Randy is the same type of comedian around his family as he is with his audience.
The day started early by spending time with Randy's wife, Sandi. Perhaps the best insight into Randy comes from his wife. After a delightful conversation with Sandi, I got into my rental car and drove to John Wayne Airport in Orange County to pick up Randy, who was returning from a weekend of concerts with the Mark Heard Band in the San Francisco area.
At the airport, traffic was heavy and tempers were frayed, as hundreds of cars competed for parking places just outside the baggage area. After a daring attempt at double parking and running into a police officer just outside the door of my car, I moved ahead and found a perfect parking place in a no parking zone. I turned off the car and went on into the baggage return area to find Randy. I quickly spotted him waiting for his luggage and talking with Mark Heard's bassist, Billy Batstone. After exchanging greetings and hugs, Randy casually related his experiences with the MHB the night before.
After doing a sound check, Randy and the MHB had entered animated conversation. "We started talking about the old soul and R&B hits, and we were trying to come up with dance routines for them," Randy recalled.
Rather than just relating the story as we waited on his luggage, Randy began to demonstrate their dance ideas while singing the melodies of the songs. Quickly, Randy pulled Batstone into this literal waltz down memory lane. Although southern Californians have a reputation for not being bothered by anything, several people started to edge away, while others looked on with grins. Whether consciously or unconsciously, Randy caught the reactions out of the corner of his eye. The grins weighed far more heavily in the mind of Randy Stonehill, as reflected in the increased energy with which he pursued his dancing. To the disappointment of some, the luggage appeared on the conveyor belt and the show was over, at least for the moment. As we carried the luggage to the car, Randy remembered his favorite dance. We sat the luggage down by the car and Randy began to dance again, doing his original routine for the pop radio hit, "Land of a Thousand Dances" while the same police man I had met earlier looked on from the middle of the confused traffic flow. Batstone, rather than being embarrassed about the show, encouraged Randy laughingly by calling out suggestions to him like a dance instructor.
Randy is a natural performer. Whether with one person or with 100 people, he is looking for that grin, that laugh, that love he receives from the people when they enjoy his antics. Just as Randy was encouraged by the grins of the people at the airport, so he is encouraged and feeds off of his audiences. Terry Taylor of Daniel Amos says, "Randy is a natural performer and needs no one on stage with him. Randy by himself is magic!" When spending time with Randy you come to the conclusion that the magic Randy has is not just worked on the stage, but pours out of him continually.
In contrast with the lightness in Randy's personality is a kind of intensity that most people never see. This intensity surfaced in our short ride from the airport to the Stonehill's casa, as Randy calls it. Randy described with graphic accuracy the recent ten-day trip to Hawaii that he and Sandi took. But even in Hawaii Randy could not just rest; he had to finish a song that he wrote for Compassion International, an organization which works with children in Third World countries. The song is entitled "Who Will Save the Children" and Randy wanted to play a tape of it. Before he could play the tape he had made in his hotel room, he apologized numerous times in typical "neurotic artist" fashion for the poor quality of the tape.
Not every issue is so important to Randy that he would interrupt his vacation time to write a song. But this issue is one that has hit Randy at the very core of his being. When his daughter was born in February of 1982, he realized that while he could take her to a doctor at anytime, millions of children may never get to see a doctor in their lives. He was so moved by this apparent inequity that he has tithed his time and energies to Compassion to try and make a difference in the lives of these children.
Arriving back at the Stonehill home we parked the car and went into the house. The smallest Stonehill, Heather Noel, was sleeping soundly in her crib as we unloaded the car.
Randy has long had a footloose and fancy-free image. It was interesting to hear Randy, the father, talk about how his life has changed since Heather was born.
That special bond between father and daughter came into sharp focus last October. At that point the possibility of losing Heather became a reality. Randy recalls the story, "I was on tour in Indiana. I was scheduled to do three concerts and had already done one. I got to Indiana the night before the next concert was scheduled. I went to the hotel, got settled, and went out to dinner. When I got back to my room the message light was on. I thought nothing of it at first. It was Sandi calling and I thought it was just to see how I was. I returned the call and no one was at home. So, I went to bed, and at 4:30 in the morning Sandi called from the emergency ward. She was in tears and said, 'Honey, please try to remain calm, I have something to tell you.'
"I just went cold and my heart started pumping. I sat down on the bed and asked her what had happened.
"Sandi said, 'We don't know how it happened, but Heather has contracted spinal meningitis.' I just went into shock. I was in disbelief. Sandi continued, 'Heather is running a very high fever and it is definitely spinal meningitis. They just need to run tests to see if it is viral or bacterial, with bacterial being the worst.'
"Sandi just said to pray and for me to call her in the morning to let her know what flight I would be coming home on. She assumed, as I did, that we would just cancel the concerts and I would return to L.A.
"I remember that when I got off the phone the first thing I did was try and make a deal with God. I prayed and said, 'Lord, I am 30 and have known you for 12 years and I have been a happy man. Let me have meningitis instead of Heather.' I felt so helpless, because there was nothing I could do to take away her pain. I think that was one of the most sincere prayers that I have ever prayed in my life.
"I couldn't sleep the rest of the night. I laid awake crying and begging God to heal her and not to let her die or be crippled. It was a very heavy time for me, because I saw the intense contrast that we are faced with as Christians. On the one hand, I realized that I had no right to go to God and say, 'Just fix it, O.K? Just do me a favor and fix it.' I am just a puny little human being. How dare I? Who do I think I am to go before God's holiness and say, 'Look, can you arrange this for me?'.
"But right opposite that feeling was that greater reality that because of God's graciousness He says, 'You are my child and you can talk to me and I do care. Yes, you are as nothing, as the grains of sand, but I love you because I made you and I care more about your little girl than you possibly could. You can come to me and trust me.' That contrast was so startling to me. You glimpse your vile, fallen humanity, and yet God's mercy and love shine through because of his holiness, even in the face of who you are. I thought, 'If Heather dies what am I gonna do? How am I gonna keep from hating God?' Again, right next to that was this picture of God's sovereignty. I remembered that Scripture, '. . .shall the pot say to the potter, why have you made me thus.' I thought, 'That's right! We are so arrogant!' We come into this world with the major misconception that we have all these rights and everything is going to work out fine because we deserve it. I realized then that if Heather died, only God in His wisdom would know how things would turn out and why they would be that way. But what I was assured of because of His sovereignty was the totality of His love.
"I thought things should work out, but God was saying. 'No, this is the real picture. You owe every breath you have to Me.' I realized in a sense God was saying to my heart, 'Look, if Heather dies you have to be thankful. That doesn't mean you won't feel the loss or grieve deeply, that is natural. You are a human and I made you that way, but I want you to realize in your heart of hearts that you should be thankful that you could feel such an intense love. There are a lot of people out there who are too numb to feel. You have to be thankful that you had nine months with Heather. You have to realize that you may lose the battle, but you will win the war. Heather may die, but you will see her again. You can be assured of that.' So, instead of shaking my fist at God I realized that I owed Him everything.
"At any rate, I got up the next morning with the distinct impression that I should stay in Indiana and do the remaining two concerts. I just didn't understand it. It seemed like God was saying, 'Look, you can weep and pray here in Indiana as well as you can in California. You are not going to do anymore good at the hospital than you are here. Honor your concert dates and get those people to pray.' So I called Sandi and said, 'Honey, please don't think that I am running away from the crisis, but I feel that I should stay and do these concerts.' She replied that she had prayed about it. She felt a peace about it and wanted me to stay and have the audiences pray for Heather.
"I went ahead with those two shows and they were two of the most special evenings of my life. All the professional distance was removed and there was a real unity there. I was so raw and open that my artistic stance was gone. They were two of the most honest performances that I have ever done in my life.
"I found out about the situation on Thursday night and flew home on Sunday. By then Heather was improving rapidly. On Sunday, Heather's regular pediatrician returned from vacation and came to the hospital to see how she was doing. He looked at the spinal fluid sample from Heather's spinal tap and immediately called the hospital pediatrician who had done the spinal tap. He asked why Heather had been diagnosed as having spinal meningitis, since the sample was clear and meningitis makes the fluid cloudy. The hospital pediatrician replied that her fluid looked like water with milk poured in it. After checking the sample again, our pediatrician replied, 'Well, it ain't cloudy now.' Heather's temperature had stabilized and things looked much better. The doctor, the nurses, the lab technicians, and my mother-in-law had all seen the fluid and agreed that it was cloudy when the tap had been done. There is no medical explanation for the change.
"In a few days the doctors let us take Heather home. Our doctor called several days later to see how Heather was. He also told Sandi, 'She had meningitis. Now she doesn't. There is no explanation'. Sandi shared with him, 'We don't want to make up hysterical or sensational stories, but my husband and I are Christians. We have had hundreds of people praying for Heather, and we really believe God has healed her.' The doctor paused on the other end of the line and then replied, 'In my professional opinion that is a distinct possibility. There is no other explanation I can give you.'"
God has indeed blessed the Stonehill family. The man bending over his daughter and changing her diaper does not fit our common perception of the long-haired rocker. God has allowed Randy to grow and mature.
With clean diapers we move back into the living room to listen to one of Randy's favorite artists, Tonio K., who is an L.A. musician with several albums to his credit. Tonio K. is also a Christian. When the music starts Randy puts Heather down on the floor. She immediately pulls herself up next to the sofa and begins to dance with the music. Randy smiles and quickly volunteers, "Heather loves music. She is a rock 'n' roll baby. Her favorites are Daniel Amos, David Edwards, and of course Daddy, because that is what she heard when she was in the womb. She will cry out 'Dada' immediately when we put on one of my records."
The Randy Stonehill "Toy Band:" Terry Taylor holding microphone for Randy on guitar, Ray Ware on telepone, and Tom Howard plunking a tune on the piano.
After several songs, Sandi returns home from shopping with a gift in hand. The time has come to get ready for a friend's wedding. After everyone has showered and dressed the real preparation for the wedding begins. We packed the car with nearly as many baby belongings as it would hold and were off. A friend of Randy's, indeed a friend of almost the entire Street Level Agency roster of artists, was getting married. The wedding was at a posh south Pasadena hotel complete with huge shade trees and an immaculately manicured lawn.
After the wedding, held on the back lawn of the hotel, everyone moved into a large reception hall inside the building. Among the guests from Street Level were the Tom Howards, the Ray Wares, the Mark Heards, the Stonehills, the Taylors, Billy Batstone, and Street Level co-owner Holly Benyousky and her husband.
The reception has a better than average, but still cheesy, band. With Randy on the far side of the room, Tom Howard gets up and starts to dance solo. He starts humbly near our table, but soon expands and covers at least a third of the dance floor. Mysteriously, a common mind begins to take over. Randy turns from his conversation and notices Tom. Tom notices Randy and their eyes lock. Without excusing himself, Randy maintains the eye contact and moves onto the dance floor towards Tom. Soon, they lock arms and are spinning together in the middle of the dance floor. Before long they are doing an hysterical blend of every type of dance they can think of, contemporary or ethnic.
Sandi leans over and whispers, "This is a tradition. Every wedding these guys go to they dance." These words are scarcely out of her mouth when the dance floor begins to clear so that everyone can see this improbable pair dance. When the song ends, Tom and Randy alone remain on the floor, bowing to a rousing standing ovation. The band, entirely amused by this spectacle, wastes no time in starting the next song, hoping for an encore performance. Almost simultaneously, everyone grabs their partners, and pulls them onto the dance floor. After a few steps, couples with children go back to pick them up, and threesomes glide across the floor.
Again it seems that Randy is compelled by something deep within himself to perform. He is always looking for a way to entertain. But Randy is not alone in this compulsion; it is shared by his closest friends, as this dancing incident indicates. With these friends Randy shares a unique love and kindred spirit as well as a common mind. They have known each other from eight to 25 years, seen dark times together, and have never abandoned each other.
Together, these men have faced professional crises. They are a family that operates on a family basis. When things at their record company began to sour, they upheld and encouraged each other. Even after each artist had left and gone different ways, to new companies for recording and management, they still kept a closeness that is hard to imitate. They play on each other's albums, they tour together, they produce each other's albums, and most of all they fellowship together.
After enjoying the reception for a reasonable length of time, it was time to be on our way back to the "house down by the ocean." In the car an intense, yet naive, side of Randy Stonehill came out. Randy was relating a chance meeting that he had with an old friend at the wedding. In recounting the conversation Randy felt the person was being sincere and making general compliments. With the help of Sandi, they scrutinized the remarks, and Randy realized that he had accepted subtle jabs as compliments. Sandi encouraged Randy to better analyze what people were saying to him.
Along these lines are nonsensical rumors which seem to abound around him, as well as other Christian entertainers. How do the Stonehills deal with the pain inflicted by malicious rumors?
"It really hurts me," Sandi states bluntly. "But Randy deals with these things the way I think the Lord would have us to. He tries to be yielded and vulnerable to God. When He hears one of the rumors, he tells me so I won't hear from somewhere else, and he is always chuckling about them."
Laugh at rumors that hurt personally and deeply? "I laugh to keep from crying. I try to keep from getting bitter. The rumors are truly bizarre and ludicrous, soon that level they are entertaining. I try to allow the Holy Spirit to be my defender and my witness. I just try to get on with my life."
When we arrive back at the Stonehill home, Heather is sound asleep in her car seat. Sandi takes her and we unload the car. Out come diaper bags, food bags, blankets, water bottles, two different strollers, and a car seat.
It is now late in the day. Tomorrow Randy has a rehearsal of some demo tapes he is doing, another interview, and he has to pack for a trip which will start the day after tomorrow.
Randy is not the man you see on stage. He is not, however, very far from that person. What you get with Randy Stonehill on stage is a magnification of certain parts of Randy. It is all very genuine and true. There are parts he keeps private, but who of us wants to tell everything about ourselves to people we don't know? With Randy Stonehill, what you see is what you get.
When you view Randy Stonehill's music as notes on a page or riffs on a guitar, it's obvious his material has been affected by his music influences - and by the fact that he usually performs concerts solo, just one voice and one acoustic guitar.
Stonehill talked about his music in a recent telephone interview. He said he is never really aware of particular styles of music. He's just trying to arrange different tunes in a way that best showcases their strengths. He said he listens to all kinds of music. Sometimes what he hears ends up influencing the music he writes.
But, all of his music, he said, is basically "pop-rock," or "sharp-edged pop music," based on a very simple structure.
Flanked By Fans, Randy plunks out a tune backstage at a recent concert.
At the same time, Stonehill the instrumentalist is basically a folk-rock musicain who has been heavily influencd by the electric folkrock of the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield-bands he admired as a teenager learning to play rock 'n' roll.
In the studio, his music is free to grow, to add the sounds made possible by other musicians. Stonehill's music can be seen as a spectrum between his two basic music-making environments: solo performances and studio recording with a band.
However, Stonehill stresses the sounds may change, but the goals and structures of the music have remained the same.
"I'm always just trying to be true to the song with my arrangements - to each particular song. I've stayed within a simple format. Strong melodies are the key. I like singing hooky songs - songs with a strong musical hook in them."
He said he never felt limited by the solo concert format and he doesn't think it has limited his songwriting. He isn't even aware of sitting down and trying to make sure he has at least three or four songs on each new album that will work with just voice and guitar.
Stonehill said performing solo "is a very intimate thing. You can really reach people like that. I'm always trying to keep that when I'm in the studio. I want the intimacy that people are familiar with if they've seen me in the concert to make it onto the record."
The sounds that have made it onto Stonehill's records have, of course, also been highly influenced by his producers. On Stonehill's first recordings - at least the two released in the U.S., Welcome To Paradise and The Sky Is Falling - Larry Norman created a large, full sound that put the singer's voice and guitar out front and then gave the band, especially hot electric guitarist Jon Linn, room to run wild.
On his last two records - Between The Glory And The Flame and Equator - Stonehill has worked with Terry Taylor of Daniel Amos. The resulting records has sounded, at times, a little shallow and flat while moving into a sound that is more modern than Norman's '60's rock sound. Stonehill's voice is out front and behind him is a mass of voices and guitars. Who's back there in the mix is kind of hard to tell. Other songs have stressed Randy's folk roots and have a simpler sound.
- Terry Mattingly